What’s your go-to condiment? Mustard? Ketchup? Mayo? Even those of us with the blandest of palates have to admit that these tame old options can get boring after a while. In an attempt to spice up mealtimes, a growing number of people have started obsessively reaching for hot sauce but, as flame-haired heat master Noah Chaimberg will tell you, a really good hot sauce is much more than just a condiment, it’s actually a ‘food that goes on food.’
Noah is the founder of Greenpoint-born company HEATONIST. He sources naturally-made hot sauces from suppliers around the world and has them all available for purchase.
Heatonist was founded in September 2013, and Noah started out by hosting tastings at local events such as Brooklyn Night Bazaar and Greenpointers markets. Then, last February, the online store was launched, and rapidly gained a cult following.
Following the success of the mail order service, the dream has now grown even bigger and Noah and his team are in the process of creating the Heatonist Hot Sauce Tasting Room, which they hope will become a kind of global HQ and clubhouse for hot sauce-lovers everywhere.
Noah is currently in the final week of a Kickstarter to raise funds for the new shop front. We caught up with him at the work-in-progress store located on Wythe Avenue to hear more about the venture and discover some little known secrets about the hot stuff.
GPers: How did your passion for hot sauce come about?
NC: Hot sauce was a problem that I wanted to solve. I loved hot sauce but I wanted somewhere I could taste it before I bought it, and I set about trying to create this in NYC. It was during research for the project that someone recommended an amazing sauce made by a brother and sister from a small town in Colorado and I wondered how many more craft-makers there were like that. Then I got onto blogs and message boards and realized there was this whole world of people selling their hot sauces at farmers markets and the products were only available in a tiny radius. I was like “this is the stuff that we should be selling, the stuff that people can’t get anywhere else.”
We made a commitment early on to only carry products that are all natural. We don’t stock products with xanthan gum (a thickener) and we also avoid capsaicin extracts (which are sometimes used to make things extra hot) because we’re all about flavor and only like our sauces as hot as nature allows. Every day we’re getting sent new samples from as far afield as Australia, Japan, and even Sweden. The hot sauce movement is starting to take off in a big way, which is really great.
GPers: How does Heatonist bring a refreshing approach to hot sauce?
NC: Hot sauce has been dominated by a very masculine culture, with macho packaging and competitive boasts of outrageous heat levels. We’re trying to make hot sauce accessible to everyone and are aiming for fifty percent of our customers to be women. You take time preparing food, it means something to you, and so you shouldn’t just be adding something for a blast of heat, but instead something that really adds flavor. When I have dinner, I take joy in picking out multiple sauces that I think will really compliment what I’m eating.
GPers: This space looks amazing. Tell us about the new Heatonist Tasting Room HQ…
NC: It was always a dream to have a storefront but it was a huge dream. We saw this place in October and suddenly realized the vision for what it could be. All the stars aligned and we signed the lease on 12/13/14!
The front section of the space is going to be a hot sauce store. We’re going to have a tasting bar with a hot sauce sommelier to help people figure out what sauce is right for them. Behind the store we’re going to have a larger area with a kitchen and huge table. It will be used as an events space for pop up dinners with visiting chefs, and also an area for hosting ‘Meet the Maker’ talks by hot sauce producers.
A real bonus here is the beautiful garden. It may be covered in snow right now, but come summer it’s going to be a gorgeous spot for us to host weekend barbecues and for people to sit out with a drink. We’re actually gathering chili seeds from many of our hot sauce suppliers and are planning on growing all the different varieties in the garden. One of our Kickstarter awards is for us to name our first small-batch Heatonist sauce after that particular bidder, and the sauce will use chilis grown in our garden!
GPers: You have 75 varieties of hot sauce, soon to grow to 150 once the store opens. How do people find out what type is right for them?
NC: In store we’ll have our hot sauce sommelier to guide people. But for online purchases we’ve always wanted to avoid sending people something they wouldn’t enjoy. You’re putting it on your food and if you don’t love it you’re not going to use it…so we’re the first ever subscription program where each sauce is tailored to the individual. We’re developing an app that allows customers to identify what they like based on eight parameters (salty, smokey, sweetness, heat etc.). All of our team here put a lot of work into assessing and rating each sauce, so once people identify what they like the app should accurately guide them to a hot sauce they’ll love.
GPers: Why do people seem to get so addicted to hot sauce?
NC: Once you get into hot sauce it’s like a drug. Your brain perceives the heat as pain, so it releases serotonin and that’s why people get addicted to it. The natural painkillers follow pain with pleasure and gradually you build a tolerance to it so you need hotter and more of it in order to get the same effect. (Laughs) I mean, it definitely puts me in a good mood!
GPers: And besides the natural high, is hot sauce actually good for you?
NC: Absolutely. Chili oxygenates your blood and increases your metabolism. If you eat spicy food you also tend to consume less calories in a meal because it’s more flavorful. Hot sauce is also really big in the vegan community because if you’re cutting out fat it’s a great way to add flavor back to the food. Also, because we don’t use the yeast-based xanthan gum, the majority of our sauces are gluten-free too.
GPers: What are some more unusual uses of hot sauce?
NC: It depends on which sauce you’re using but there’s one in particular that I love using in salad dressings. Hot sauce can be delicious with sushi and makes a nice change to wasabi. Also, I really love a peanut butter sandwich topped with Mike’s Hot Honey.
GPers: Oh cool, Greenpoint-based Mike’s Hot Honey counts as a hot sauce as well?
NC: Of course! We’re also going to be stocking other locally made goods that will compliment our hot sauces, like pretzels, crackers, beef jerky etc. We want to make a Heatonist bag and a t-shirt too…(Noah glances worriedly around at the gutted interior and laughs)…but right now we’re just focusing on getting the doors open. The date for our Grand Opening is set for April 18th and we still have a whole load to do!!
GPers: Ah, the heat is on!
Heatonist’s Kickstarter ends this Saturday and gift options for backers include shedloads of hot sauce. Also, anyone backing it with $10 or more gets their name inscribed on a brass plaque in the store…so help make their Hot Sauce HQ a reality whilst becoming a little piece of hot sauce history in the making!